How to pack a carry-on for chic city travel {Europe spring summer edition}

 
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This post isn’t a little 10 “bring this” and “bring that” tips for packing. No, no.

This is a complete system you can use to create your chic and comfortable travel wardrobe.

And it’s for you if you want to do the work before you leave, so that each day of your travel you can effortlessly and quickly get dressed in an outfit that leaves you feeling chic and comfortable from croissants to sangria.

So you want to dress comfortable, but why chicly?

There was a time when I thought the only way to do “real travel” was out of a backpack, with wrinkly clothes, leggings, shorts, and a snapback cap. This was how I travelled Australia, hopping from hostel to hostel.

But after I visited my first European city, I realized how wrong I’d been.

Dressing well improves your experience of a city and of a culture.

You get to feel more connected to the culture and the people, instead of spot the tourist from a mile away.

You get better service when you show respect for trying to fit into their culture instead of disrupt it.

And you get conversation with locals who are surprised to find out you’re a traveller.

But, perhaps even more importantly, dressing well can be the difference between looking at travel photos and saying “I look terrible—don’t post that!” and saying “Wow. What a great trip.”

This is why I believe in dressing like you—the chic and stylish you—no matter where you travel to.

It doesn’t take a giant suitcase.
It doesn’t take sacrificing comfort.
It doesn’t take blisters on your feet.

The secret to packing is in finding your overlap of packability, wearability, and cross-pollination.

And I’m going to break down my packing formula step-by-step and when you follow it, your result will fit into a carry-on.

HOW TO PACK FOR EUROPEAN CITY TRAVEL IN A CARRY-ON {warm weather edition}

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Section 1: the outfits

1 Wearability

This is your starting point. Research the weather, the expected rainfall, the culture of your destination to get an idea of what kind of outfits you want to wear.

The culture is often the overlooked factor that can separate a chic traveller from a tourist. There are many places in the world where people dress a bit more formal, or more conservatively than we do in North America. Many cities in Europe are some of these.

An example: if you’ll be visiting religious sites, you might need to wear something that covers your shoulder and knees. If you’re visiting an especially stylish city, flip flops may not be appropriate for restaurants.

Now make a list.

The List can be made in the form of:
a) pulling pieces from your closet and making a pile, or
b) the pen and paper kind of way.

Your list contains all the pieces you have that:

  1. you love (you feel stylish and put-together in, and are mentally comfortable + empowered in)

  2. are comfortable (physically feel good—no itchy tags, no buttons that need to be undone after an Italian pasta)

  3. match how formal or casual you want to dress

  4. in line with the climate and cities you’ll be travelling to

These pieces are wearable.

It might be your entire spring/summer closet if you already pick your clothes based on comfort. Or it might be a smaller section after you knock out all the slightly uncomfortable dresses and pencil skirts you wear to your corporate job.

It might look like flowy maxi dresses and skirts, silky sundresses, jeans and blouses, or anything else!

For now, we are going to focus on the outfits themselves (tops, bottoms, dresses, and fashion accessories like belts, scarves, and jewelry) and leave shoes, bags, and jackets for the end steps.

The collections of items you’ve pulled so far, we will refer to as The List.

Got a number of options, m’dear? We’ll be narrowing it down + picking the best choices through the next two steps!

Want to fast-track this how-to and get the lowdown on what exactly I packed and why?

I put together a download that walks you through this process using the real pieces I packed on my recent Rome and Spain trip.

 
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2 Packability

I use this to describe the items that travel well.

  1. They are materials that don’t take up more room in a suitcase than they are worth (i.e. a tulle maxi skirt vs a cotton one—pick the cotton!)

  2. They are pieces that aren’t excessively heavy (i.e. a fully metal studded pair of sandals vs a plain black pair)

  3. They are materials that aren’t prone to wrinkling (unless you know all your airbnbs will be equipped with irons and you aren’t afraid to use them!)

  4. They are pieces that are easily cleaner (favour your machine wash over your dry clean only silks)
You can go through The List—that so far is made up of wearable items—and rank them on their packability, or simply cross out the items that are not very packable.

 
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3 Cross-pollination abilities

This is my favourite part, my friend! This is where your creativity comes in, and you get to create your strategic and stylish little travel capsule.

This element of our venn diagram is a little more complex, so we’re going to break it down step-by-step:

Step 1: Find a jumping off point

Look at what’s left on The List and look for your jumping off point. This can be one item you really want to bring (like your new polka dot blouse). Or it can be a collection of similar items you have a lot of (say, high-waisted midi and maxi skirts).

Step 2: Turn your jumping off point into outfits

From your jumping off point, start turning these pieces into outfits using other pieces on The List. If your jumping off point is a dress, this can be harder as your outfit is pretty complete (minus shoes, which we are saving for a later step!) but think about the tweaks you can make to get multiple looks from one outfit, like adding a belt, a necklace, or a lightweight neck scarf.

If your jumping off point is something like those high-waisted midi and maxi skirts, start pulling all the tops you know, or think might go with them.

And here’s a crucial part to this step: start trying on. If you have one top that you always wear with one of your skirts, and a different top you wear with another skirt, swap them and see if it works.

Step 3: Turn those outfits into formulas

From the last step, you should of been able to create outfits that share pieces—or in other words cross-pollinate. This is the key to smart packing: only considering the pieces that cross-pollinate. So, pack the tops that work with all your bottoms, and the bottoms that work with all your tops and eliminating the skirt that only matches with a single top.

Now you should see some formulas emerging.

We’re going to stick with the high-waisted skirt example. You might notice you’re pairing your skirts with crop tops and with longer tops you tuck in.
So your formulas are:
1) tucked in top + high waist skirt
2) crop top + high waist skirt

Turning outfits into formulas enables you to get even more creative, asking things like: What other tops on The List do I have that I could tuck in? What other bottoms do you have on The List that pair well with crop tops?

One of my favourite parts about the packing process is that I ALWAYS find a new outfit I’ve never worn before. So try on new combinations!

Step 4: Create your capsule closet

You might already have enough clothes to bring from the last steps. If you still only have a couple outfits, mix in another formula by jumping off the pieces you’ve already selected from The List.

If you have a top + bottom combo formula, maybe throw in a couple of your favourite breezy dresses.

If you started with a dress, maybe think of what top + bottom combo you wear with the same belt or neck scarf, and go through step 2 and 3 again.

Step 5: Know where to cut it

All the steps up until this are trying to get you to the ideal suitcase: where almost all of your tops go with almost all of your bottoms (and maybe a couple outside pieces thrown in—like dresses, a more formal outfit, or more casual outfit.)

You can load outfits in until your carry-on suitcase is full, but I suggest to stop before that. My threshold: 5-10 top pieces (including tops as well as dresses/rompers).

Here’s why I use “top pieces” as a threshold: we mess up our tops before we mess up our bottoms. Whether this is from a little food + drink spillage, or from the dreaded armpit sweat.

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Travel hack alert

“But Rebecca, only 10 tops and I’m going for 14 days!”

I hear you. The answer: expect to do laundry every 10-14 days. My favourite travel hack for this: I bring a little bit of detergent, and hand-wash a couple pieces in a sink and hang to dry (just make sure the sink is clean first!) If you’re going for a month or two in a carry-on, you might use laundromats for a more thorough wash.

Or maybe you’re thinking “6 tops—I don’t want to wear all my outfits twice and I like to change to a new outfit for dinner each night.”

So let’s do the math. 5 tops and 4 bottoms. Let’s say each top goes with 3 out of 4 of your bottoms:

5 tops x 3 bottoms = 15 outfits
+ a couple dress = 17 outfits

Doesn’t seem like such a limited wardrobe now, I hope!

 

Hey! Want to know exactly what I packed?

I’ve put together a download of the specific pieces I packed so you can see exactly how I applied this system.

 
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Section 2: Shoes, bags, and jackets

So we have our 5 tops, 4 bottoms, and 2 dresses (and some accessories that turn our dresses into multiple looks.)

Here’s where we get strict on the numbers: 2 jackets/sweaters. 2 bags. 3 pairs of shoes.

Because that’s truly all you need.
 

Jackets/sweaters

In your closet you should be able to find 2 sweaters and jackets where between the both of them, you have something to go with every outfit you’ve packed. A good rule of thumb: one sweater and one jacket, and between the hip and the knee in length is most versatile.

Try on your outfits with your sweater and jacket picks!
 

Bags

This one is easy: a day bag and a night bag. Your day bag probably needs to fit your camera, your water bottle, maybe even your guidebook. Your night bag can be something smaller to hold your cash and cell phone.

A neutral coloured bag (brown, black, cream, grey) will go with any outfit. And if your outfits are made up of mostly neutral, a coloured bag will go with all your outfits as well.

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Shoes

Universe magic: somehow, 3 pairs is always enough.

Style magic: a chic outfit lets you get away with the most comfortable shoes.

When it comes to shoes, I’m all about comfort first. That’s why I say to leave the heels at home, and focus on versatile pairs that can cover you for rain, hours of walking, and a nice dinner.

If you’re dressing chicly with skirts and dresses, a pair of comfortable—maybe even orthopedic—sandals might be just what you need for your long days of walking. (A pair like these in a neutral colour are totally comfort-based, but won’t be the first thing people notice in your chic outfit.)

Or maybe your favourite sneakers will provide you with the comfort you need + the chicness you want to feel.

Or maybe you already have a pair of perfectly worn in espadrilles that you love + could walk for hours in.

The 3 pairs you bring may not be any of your favourites or most-worn from home. But they should all be comfortable and they should all go with a large portion of your outfits.

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The final add-ons:

So now you have your foundation: versatile outfits with some accessories, 2 sweaters/jackets, a day bag, a night bag, and 3 pairs of shoes.

You can throw in the specific pieces you need that we haven’t covered yet: a bathing suit, a rain jacket or tinyumbrella (my favourite), a pair of pyjamas, a stylish sun hat.

And if you followed along, I have no doubts that you, m’love, have just packed a chic and comfortable capsule wardrobe that fits in your carry-on.

Wishing you the happiest of travels with your effortlessly chic travel style!

Your personal stylist,

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PS: Want to know exactly what I packed for my trip in the photos above? I’ve put together a download of the specific pieces I packed so you can see exactly how I applied this system.